When Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, released her album Art Angels in 2015, her sound did a full 180. The cold, electronic minimalism that catapulted her to mainstream success on her 2012 album Visions went through a dizzying, sugary makeover, with Boucher zipping between pop-punk riffs and squelchy synths that made for an album that sounded like living inside a beautiful pinball machine. But even for all of its eccentric excess, Art Angels was also a hopeful record, one that, once you set aside its fantasy images of angels, princesses, and imaginary battles, felt like a raw statement of self-preservation and resilience. “There’s harmony in everything,” Boucher sang at the album’s end. “It’s a butterfly whose wings span the world.”
Nothing that saccharine exists on Miss Anthropocene, Grimes’s fifth album and the first in five years. Nothing that resilient does either. It’s a grim, hollow record that revels in its own sense of cinematic doom, with Boucher building an ashen, apocalyptic world rolling with parties and mind-numbing drugs. Each song, howling with distorted guitars and heavy reverb, plays like you’re being slowly sucked into the music. “This is the sound of the end of the world,” Boucher sings on the slow-burning “Before the fever,” before the track melts into a tornado of noise and distant vocals.
Miss Anthropocene seems to have conceptual intentions; Boucher has joked that with this album, she wanted to “make climate change fun” and that it’s about a psychedelic demon, among other ideas. That, while recording, she shacked up with Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk, a man who wants to make Mars habitable and distrusts artificial intelligence, among other wild ideas, might also explain its nihilist, cyber-punk streak. And while it’s clear that this is a record wrestling with an unknown, on Miss Anthropocene, Boucher frequently grabs at clichés and almost teenaged conceptions of soullessness in her journey into darkness: she wears black eyeliner, she writes songs in the dark, she plays albums so she can have a soundtrack to break things. Not unlike her previous one-off single “We Appreciate Power,” which imagined a future in which people capitulate to robot overlords, Boucher’s songs are peppered with mini-manifestos and shallow slogans. “Baby, it’s violence, violence, violence,” she coos on “Violence,” which plays like a cheap early Max Martin cut if he were writing for ’80s Depeche Mode. “Unrest is in the soul, we don’t move our bodies anymore,” she sings on the boring club track “Darkseid,” a neutered vision of the world Boucher’s imagining here.
The most confounding thing about Miss Anthropocene is how relatively familiar it feels, especially for an artist who appeared to have been growing more assured and independent in her sound as a producer. In the past, it was arguably hard to hear a Grimes song and pinpoint exactly what else it drew inspiration from, in the past or present. But ever since the canned nu-metal of “We Appreciate Power,” it feels like Boucher’s music is leaning into preset musical textures and influences on this album, from the Dance Dance Revolution-worthy ’90s breakbeat of “4ÆM” to the Evanescence gloom of a ballad like “New Gods.” Boucher’s references are so tangible that at times she even names them outright, like when she sings that she wants to put on the Smashing Pumpkins’s “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” in the middle of “My Name Is Dark.” “You stupid girl,” she sneers on the same song, referencing the exact Garbage song she mimics. For an artist so consumed with what our cursed future might look and feel like, Miss Anthropocene sounds a lot like the past.
Much of Miss Anthropocene’s mash-up style evokes a soundtrack for a slick supervillain film, but the few gems come when Boucher works against that impulse and trades the sci-fi fan-fiction for a dose of actual human intimacy. A song like “You’ll miss me when you’re not around,” might seem basic compared to Miss Anthropocene’s more extreme textures, a jagged bassline anchoring a relatively understated track on which Boucher’s layered vocals are the star, but it makes for gothic pop perfection. “Delete Forever,” an acoustic breath of fresh air, is the sole indication on this album that there’s someone with a beating heart at the wheel. Written in the aftermath of the artist Lil Peep’s death and inspired by her own experiences losing friends to opioid addiction, the song has a warm, folksy simplicity that’s new territory for Grimes and cuts through the rest of Miss Anthropocene’s bad girl posturing.
Boucher has always been a playful futurist, but in the past I’d never accuse her of simply being a stylist. Over time, her music has shifted from its early experimental electronic inclinations into full-blown pop music, but not, thankfully, without losing that capacity for experimentation. But while Miss Anthropocene might be a concept album about someone who’s dead inside, it also sounds dead inside, rote and comfortable within music that sits, for the first time, behind Grimes and not ahead of her.